Officers in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) take vows at the time of their ordination and/or installation to office. There are eight questions that every person – Ruling and Teaching Elder – must answer. One of the questions asked is,
Do you promise to further the peace, unity and purity of the church?
Because we are prone to lapse into varying forms of legalism, this vow can create the greatest issues for leaders. How do we promote peace within the church if we believe the purity of the church is at stake? How can the church be united when sisters and brothers disagree about what it means to be pure? Too often we believe that we must choose peace or unity or purity.
Last week one of our congregation chose “purity” or at least what they perceive is purity. They chose, after engaging in study and prayer, to disaffiliate from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) over what they define as theological differences regarding essential tenets but are really differences over ordination standards. Regardless, their decision disrupts the peace and unity of our presbytery.
One of the chief criticisms of the temple authorities against Jesus was his failure to preserve the “purity” of the Temple. Had Jesus focused solely on purity, the house of Zaccheus would have been lost. If Jesus had been intent on purity, he would have never come close to the ten lepers and a healing miracle would never have occurred. Similarly, countless women would have been ignored or even rejected by Jesus, if he had insisted on purity. Had Jesus insisted on “purity” alone, the church I know would not exist and I would be lost.
The Jesus I encounter in the gospels isn’t concerned with purity alone. He eats with sinners because they need to feel and know that God’s love was inclusive of all rather than exclusive toward some. The Jesus I know welcomes children, not as object lessons or as a means to secure a majority vote, but as the example of faith that enters the Kingdom of God. The Jesus I know gave up purity to become as one of us and to bring us peace and unity. The Jesus I know as my Savior give me peace and unity and instills within me a desire for purity that follows his loving example.
So does our vow to promote the peace, unity and purity of the church require us to dilute our faith, or to deny what we hear God saying to us in Scripture? Certainly not! The Reformed faith extols us to keep our hearts open and our minds sharp so that we can discern the will of God for individuals and the church. Upholding this vow is hard work but it keeps me connected with others who are working just as hard as I am to keep it.
It saddens me that these leaders chose purity to the exclusion of peace and unity. Their choice to disaffiliate with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is short-sighted and troubling. What troubles me is that one day, in another denomination, these same leaders will be confronted with the issues that will challenge the peace, unity and purity of their new home. And the cycle will begin once again…